African-American students in the Beaufort County School District are far more likely to be charged with an offense critics say is ripe for biased enforcement.
Though black students make up 31 percent of the district’s student body, they accounted for more than 69 percent of the “disturbing schools” cases referred to the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice during the last 10 years. That’s 749 of the county’s 1,081 cases from 2006 to 2015.
While there are no statistics on how many of those cases were prosecuted, about 55 percent of all statewide SCDJJ cases are eventually referred to family court, according to DJJ statistics.
The disparity is unacceptable, said Laura Bush, vice chairwoman of the school board.
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“The numbers are very disturbing. I make no qualms about it,” Bush said. “I think schools are a microcosm of our society, (and) we need to deal with these issues inside our buildings.”
The disparity isn’t unique to Beaufort County schools. It exists throughout the state and has led to two bills being introduced in the past year to more specifically define the crime of “disturbing schools” and prevent criminalizing common school misbehavior, said Susan Dunn, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.
“We hope to take the tool of ‘disturbing schools’ away,” Dunn said. “Then (police officers) will have to be able to identify school incidents as a regular crime no matter where it happened.”
Currently, “disturbing schools” is vaguely defined as to “disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers” or “act in an obnoxious manner” on school property, according to state statute.
“It’s just really subjective and leaves room for bias,” Dunn said.
The numbers are very disturbing. I make no qualms about it.
Beaufort County school board member Laura Bush
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said it is worth considering whether the “disturbing schools” law leads to over-criminalizing misbehavior in the classroom.
“The 8,552 referrals to the state DJJ in the past five years is an extremely high number,” Davis said. “We certainly need and must promote order in our classrooms. Having said that, however, we should consider whether having police arrest students whenever they ‘act in an obnoxious manner’ is good public policy.”
“Disturbing schools” is the second most common offense for juvenile cases in both Beaufort County and South Carolina. It is typically issued by school resource officers that work in the county’s schools.
The crime can hold a sentence of up to 90 days in juvenile detention and a fine up to $1,000, according to state law.
We should consider whether having police arrest students whenever they ‘act in an obnoxious manner’ is good public policy.
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort
The racial divide in school punishment goes beyond just one charge in Beaufort County.
High rates of “disturbing schools” among black students may indicate that they are also more often charged with other crimes in school.
The charge is often used by school resource officers alongside more serious offenses, said Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner.
If a student brings a gun to school, for example, he will face a weapons charge as well as disturbing schools to penalize the disruption he created in the school.
But Tanner said his officers treat all students equally when reporting crime.
“Law enforcement reacts to crimes that are committed,” Tanner said. “We don’t pick and choose where to write a report.”
In county schools, racial disparity is not limited to police reports.
Black students made up about 46 percent of in-school suspensions and 55 percent of out-of-school suspensions in the 2013-14 school year, according to district records.
Beaufort County district officials pointed out that the local numbers are fitting with national trends.
“It always concerns me when I see that one population may be viewed differently than another for whatever the reasons might be,” said Gregory McCord, the school district’s chief student services officer, who oversees discipline in the county’s schools.
McCord said the district attempts to address the disparity through cultural awareness programs for district staff and discussions in quarterly meetings with law enforcement.
“I think our police agencies are doing a great job in addressing how individuals are being viewed,” McCord said. “But the more it’s on the forefront of conversation, the more we can control people’s biases.”
Police often get referrals that lead to crime reports from district staff. So the disparity shows that more training is needed for school officials, said school councilwoman Bush.
There has been some progress on this issue in past years, district officials say.
A new discipline policy implemented in the district last year aimed to reduce suspensions that disproportionately took minority students out of the classroom for extended periods. The new policy eliminated suspensions for offenses such as forgery, dishonesty, dress code violations and profanity, giving principals more leeway to find alternative punishments.
Former school board chairman Fred Washington said the continuing racial inequality should be taken seriously by the district and that new policies should be considered.
“When you see problems like this you need a plan to fix it,” Washington said. “If there is no plan after you hear about it, then than that shows you don’t care.”
Juvenile disturbing schools cases in Beaufort County
Cases against black students, white students and other cases
313 - 71%
92 - 21%
36 - 8%
*Source: S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice